The boy is 6 years old and does not know where his parents are. His maternal grandmother, whom he lives with, tells him his mother went away to work in a foreign land. His paternal grandmother, Catalina de Guagnini, tells him his father was kidnapped and has not been heard from since.

She would like to tell him his mother was kidnapped also, that men abducted the boy and his father one morning in front of the boy's nursery school, that the boy's mother never reported to work that morning, that armed men came to the couple's empty apartment that night and placed a sign on the door saying "closed" -- that for the four years since her children disappeared, Catalina de Guagnini's life has been obsessed every day and nearly every waking hour by the struggle to make the Argentine government account for them and for the thousands of other men and women who vanished without a trace and left this country with what feels to the stranger like a hushed and swallowed madness that does not pass with time.

She would like, one day, to tell her grandson that but his other grandmother does not wish to talk about it.

"Every month of the year, on the coasts of South America, they were reporting bodies. It depended on the marine tides," de Guagnini said, seated stiffly at the felt-covered dining table that dominates her small Buenos Aires apartment. Her hands and gray-haired head trembled slightly as she said this, but her voice was very strong. "This is the drama they must live with. I think that in this drama if they want the silence, it is because they have a real sense of guilt."

When she speaks of "them," she means the government security agents she believes took her two sons and daughter-in-law away in 1977. They were men who worked, according to relatives like de Guagnini and to reports from such international organizations as Amnesty International and the Organization of American States' Interamerican Committee on Human Rights, by forcing people from their homes and offices into unlicensed Ford Falcons, driving them to police stations or clandestine prisons, torturing them with half- drownings and electric cattle prods, and then imprisoning them, or killing them, or injecting them with sedatives, as some believe, and pushing them alive but unconscious from airplanes in flight.

When Argentine military and retired military men speak of "them," they mean the guerrillas who turned to political violence in the 1970s -- who shot to death former president Pedro F. Aramburu, who held Argentine and foreign business executives prisoner for months at a time while frantic relatives raised ransom money, and who killed the 15-year- old daughter of Navy Admiral Armando Lambruschini when they bombed Lambruschini's apartment in 1978.

To defeat the guerrillas, to keep Argentina from collapsing into bombed-out disarray, the military had to do certain unpleasant things, like coming to people's houses in the night and taking them away. In the course of this necessary war activity, certain "excesses" may have been committed. That is the official explanation, and it is as far as the official explanation goes.

Between de Guagnini and the military men there is a great deal of death, but no conversation. De Guagnini writes letters, or lengthy petitions, on behalf of the relatives she works with; the government generally declines to answer them.

Stories surface, many of them by now several years old, and make their way around: the boy who went diving in a lake and came up vomiting because he had seen headless bodies weighted together at the lake bottom; the factory supervisors who gave security forces the names of troublemakers they wished to see disappear; the construction worker who quietly left the country after his crew unearthed a pile of freshly buried bodies and then covered them up because they did not know what else to do. Perhaps they are apocryphal. There is no official response. People pass them in confidence and then go on with their business.

"Discreet mantle of silence" is the term a retired Argentine general used last year. One does not talk about it. From 6,000 to 15,000 people -- the low number has been documented by relatives, the high number estimated by Amnesty International -- vanished from their homes, so that friends and family have never had a body or a telephone call or a death certificate to establish whether they are alive or dead.

Newspapers for years refused to print advertisements in which relatives of missing people pleaded for information on their whereabouts. The nation's biggest news and picture magazines do not mention the missing people. No school will sanction discussion of it, although almost every schoolchild old enough to remember probably knows it happened; a foreign visitor, speaking recently to a roomful of bright high school girls, mentioned the missing people, and the girls stirred in their chairs and fell silent, as though the visitor had said something profoundly embarrassing.

The country has its catchwords. Desaparecidos. The disappeared. Guerra sucia. The dirty war. The dirty war has no public veterans. It is known who led the armed forces in shootouts with the guerrillas who tried to take the northern city of San Miguel de Tucum,an; it is known who commanded the army and navy and led the "attack on subversion"; it is not known who put people into Ford Falcons and drove them away. There must be men in Argentina now who carry themselves like certain Vietnam veterans of the 1970s, shopping, working, eating in restaurants, bloodied in ways they do not talk about.

"They did it as a historical mission, and for this they had to violate the law," a recently retired army general said in the government office where he now works. "You don't think they did it with maps, do you? 'This guy is here, that guy is there ...' The thing was decentralized, and in many cases done spontaneously. The government knows the names of 20 percent of those who died."

The general was told it would still be extremely interesting to talk to someone who had joined this fight -- who had taken people away because he believed he had to.

"Nobody's going to do it," the general said. "Nobody says it to me. Nobody says it to each other."

The general was pressed about it again, and he put his arms on his knees and leaned forward, speaking softly. "You want someone to tell you, 'Well, I put a stocking over my head, I went to this family's house one night, I burst in and said, "Where is such and such a boy," I lined the family up against the wall while I went in to get him, I covered his head and tied his hands in front of him, I took him down to a station and plunged his head in cold water over and over to make him talk about what he knows and whom he knows'?"

The general was looking directly at his visitor, and squinting. "You want somebody to describe to you the moment when he squeezed the trigger and killed somebody by shooting him?"

The general shook his head, and did not say much of anything more after that.

The worst time was four and five years ago, and since then, under strict military rule, the violence in Argentina has gradually stilled. The streets, as government officials like to point out, are quiet. It is behind us, they will tell the inquiring foreigner, exasperation sometimes rising in their voices. It is done with. We have to rebuild.

But the country cannot leave it behind. Beneath every international condemnation of Argentina over the last five years, beneath the meetings in Geneva and the demonstrations before the Argentine embassy in Paris, beneath much of the political tension that helps keep Argentina's now-discredited military government from pulling out and handing its economic shambles of a country to civilians -- beneath all that, there are the men and women who vanished.

Every Thursday at midafternoon, silent men and women walk a slow circle below the palm trees in front of the government house. The women, who by now are known internationally, wear white scarves embroidered with the names of their children and the date they disappeared. Sometimes the police arrest them, or photographers who try to take pictures of them. Sometimes the police stand at intersections around the plaza and tell people they may not cross to go in -- "For the moment, it is not permitted."

The military is afraid of trials, or reprisals, if civilians take power again. Nuremberg, it is said, is what they think about. Former president Roberto E. Viola caused a stir last March by saying, "If the Reich's troops had won the last war, the war crimes tribunal would have been held not in Nuremberg but in Virginia."

There is talk, now and then, of a law of olvido -- forgetting.

"We would go along with a law of olvido," said a black-haired activist in the Peronist movement, the largest political movement in the country, and the one the military opposes most adamantly. "If there's anyone stupid enough to think you can forget because there's a law saying you have to ... You can't legislate forgetting."

It was winter, and a wood fire smoldered behind the Peronist's armchair. "They should be afraid," he said. "They're right to be afraid."

He put his finger to his temple, pointing. "Argentines hate for a long time," he said. "They can hate without talking about it, without showing it. It may take years before it comes out. But it will come out."

"My husband was a military adviser to the undersecretary of planning," Dolly Rebay de Fernandez said quietly, in the voice of a person who has learned to get the story out of the way. "He worked on various areas, especially the South Atlantic. They had an employe in the ministry who had come in as a soldier -- they had given him the position to help him out -- and he got his sociology degree and went on working there. In 1976, on the 15th of December, there was a meeting in the secretariat's conference room. They always took a 15-minute break. This young man came in, this employe, and left a portfolio on a chair. A bomb went off. Fourteen people died and 34 were wounded, most of them very badly ... A lieutenant who worked with my husband lost both legs; 29 years old, he's in a wheelchair now ... A navy captain had both legs amputated and lost part of his arms ... My husband was the last to die. He lived 12 days. Forty percent of his body was totally burned."

She wore a pink dress and sandals, and her voice echoed a little in the sparsely furnished room. Below the open window the Peugeot taxis swarmed down one of Buenos Aires' busiest wide streets. The women who sat with her, their faces impassive, had lost their husbands and sons in what seemed to them similar ways: a young army sublieutenant, shot to death in a confrontation with San Miguel de Tucum,an guerrillas; an artillery group chief, kidnapped by guerrillas in an attack on a Buenos Aires Province arsenal, and held captive for 10 months before he was shot to death in the back of a small truck.

"It always seems the desaparecidos are multiplying," de Fernandez said. "You're always reading that there are more and more of them. Nobody asks why they disappeared. What did they do to provoke it? They act like they were wonderful people, poor innocent people taken from their homes -- as though the terrorism never did anything here. And our husbands, who defended the fatherland -- they look like executioners, or assassins. What they were doing was defending themselves from foreign attack. Because you have to believe that it was foreign."

What of trials, due process, proof of guilt?

"In a war you can't do that," de Fernandez said. "In wars in other countries you don't make judgments person by person."

"They all carried false identification," said Hebe Solari de Berdina, mother of the slain sublieutenant. "They had so much false documentation."

"Three thousand guerrillas who showed up on the list of desaparecidos were found hiding out in France and other places," Fernandez said, and she showed an article from an Argentine newspaper, which cited an article from an extremely conservative Mexican magazine, which said this.

"If there were 200 desaparecidos and we found 199 of them, everybody would make the same big scandal about it,'" said Col. Gaston Fermepin, a big, dark-suited man whose son was the Berdina boy's best friend.

"I think in every war there have been desaparecidos," Fermepin said. "It would be good to know how many bodies weren't found in Europe, in Algiers, in Vietnam. I've visited your Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He is a desaparecido."

Fermepin spoke for a minute of the friendship between his son and the Berdina boy. Hebe de Berdina stood quickly and left the room, her face working. When she came back she sat again in her straight-backed chair and said, "The only thing I can assure you is that if the guerrillas come back, we will fight them the same way."

In the narrow Buenos Aires apartment where Lilia Amparo Jones de Orfano lives with her husband, the fourth door on the left leads to the boys' bedroom. There are twin beds covered with gray plaid spreads, a night table with photographs pressed under the glass, two drawers full of folded socks and underwear, and a guitar zipped into its black plastic case.

In the photographs the young men are mugging for the camera, both of them dark and curly-headed, one mustached. They have been gone five years. When the OAS' Interamerican Committee on Human Rights visited Argentina in September 1979, the Orfanos' was one of the 5,580 reports the committee received. This is what the Orfanos said:

The 25-year-old had coffee with his mother one evening, said he had to meet some friends, and never came home. The 21-year- old took an apartment with a friend, walked in his neighborhood one day, and was seen being forced into a car and driven away. In between the two disappearances, Lilia de Orfano and her husband were taken from their home at 5 in the morning by men who forced themselves into the apartment and identified themselves as army. The Orfanos were blindfolded, taken to a group detention center, held for 10 days with the blindfolds still on, and then released.

"I'm Catholic, you know." De Orfano sipped coffee from a flowered cup in the dining room, with pajamas flapping on the clothesline just outside. "I pray every night. I speak badly to God because He allowed this to happen to my sons. And then I say no, because He has given me the strength to go on."

Her sons, like the sons of Catalina de Guagnini, were politically active. There are some desaparecido relatives who believe their children or husbands had nothing to do with the Argentine left or the student movement, that their abductions were part of a monstrous net that took in infants and pregnant women and people with no political involvement at all, but these two women are not among them.

"Let them be judged," de Guagnini said. "Let each be tried for whatever he has done that they can prove."

"We all have the right to think," de Orfano said. "Everybody has the right to think in his own way. My kids, I tell you, never killed anybody. I am sure of this. They never planted a bomb."

"The daughter of Lambruschini, poor thing, they bombed her," de Guagnini said. "But there she was. They took her body. They know all about it. I think the attackers deserve the same thing -- to know where they are, and that they are there because they killed Lambruschini's daughter. Our problem is not one of guilt or innocence. Our problem is that every human being must know where he is, and why. There is no argument about a 'dirty war' that can justify what they've done."

De Guagnini lives on a street where low stone and concrete buildings line up face to face in the shade of trees that are now bright with summer leaves. On the corner a plump womdocumean sells black blood sausages and stacked peaches and oranges. De Guagnini lives alone; after 42 years of marriage, she and her husband separated a year and a half ago.

She rarely goes to movies, or reads novels. She hates weekends. Days when she cannot work on the desaparecido problem are scarcely endurable for her. Her colleagues are similar haunted women: a pediatrician who found herself unable to stand other people's children, a dress designer who lost "the grace of her hands," as de Guagnini put it, and now runs mimeograph machines in the offices where the relatives work.

They believe some of the missing people are alive, and being held in secret. Sometimes they use the present tense to talk about them, and sometimes not. "We talk in this uncertainty -- in the 'who knows,'" de Guagnini said. "But we proceed as though they were alive. There are people who have already mentally buried their children. It's very hard to go on living like this."

What if a list were published, finally, and it said their sons were dead?

"I don't know," de Orfano said. "What will I do? I don't know what I'll do. But staying here calmly, with my sons dead? The answer is no."

She sat on one of the plaid bedspreads, feet together in her plastic house slippers, gazing at the wall. "There are clean wars?" she said. "A war against whom? Against anyone who thought? Against people who didn't think like them? If there was a 'dirty war,' it was theirs, because when they took my sons, my sons were in no war. Their only arms were paper and pens. The children they took with their parents were in a war?" Contempt was making her voice unsteady. "'Excesses,'" she said.

Dear Se?nor Orfano:

I have the pleasure of directing myself to you with regard to the letter of 2 Sept. 1976, addressed to this ministry, requesting information as to the whereabouts of Pantaleon Daniel ORFANO.

With respect to this matter, I bring to your attention the fact that the pertinent judicial authority wishes to convey that no record exist regarding his location, and that he is not in detention.